Countryside Q&A With Viki Deal
Below is a transcript of an interview between Vicki Deal, Group Recruitment Lead, Countryside Properties UK Plc and Ben Wardleworth, Business Development Director, ENGAGE Technology Partners.
Q: What was it that first drew you to Engage?
A: Countryside is currently on a “Digital Transformation” journey in various areas of our business, in order to better support future growth of the Group. Within this modernisation programme, we were focused on the way in which we manage and engage with our labour workforce. First and foremost, to provide complete transparency and simplicity for all parties, including our own teams, our agency partners and our agency workforce. But also, to prepare us for upcoming legislative changes that will have a significant impact on this portion of our workforce.
Engage was initially introduced to us by one of our agency partners, Bromak, who had successfully trialled the system within our North West business. They had been using the system with other clients for some time and thought it would be beneficial for us to consider it. After some research, we also discovered that Randstad, another of our agency partners, were also using the system with other clients and they too endorsed that we should consider it. By working together, we were able to conduct targeted pilots in smaller areas of the business, which were a complete success and subsequently led to the rollout of Engage across the Group.
Previously our processes were completely manual, time-consuming activities on a cyclical basis. Our spend was managed, but not in real-time and it was very labour intensive, both internally and for our suppliers. We wanted to simplify this for everyone concerned. Of course, it had to work for Countryside as a business, but we were really encouraged by the fact that Engage was a collaborative, neutral platform that offered a simple, modern system for everyone, including the suppliers and the workers.
Q: What was the onboarding like?
A: We undertook a PSL review in readiness for the planned national roll out of Engage, so we brought our suppliers on a journey with us. Our strategy was to get the ‘buy in’ from all our PSL of 18 vendors for the initial phase of the Engage roll out for early 2020.
Engage helped us communicate with all our Vendor partners, which was crucial for us, as only two of the 18 PSL had previously used the system. Engage had a very collaborative approach and supported us through this process, which made it very straightforward for us all.
We planned for a go live in 2020 across the entire business, but with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent closure of our sites, we delayed the launch until our sites had reopened. In reality, the site closure allowed us to finalise our plans with Engage and prepare everything for a group-wide rollout, so that when the sites reopened, we were operating under the new system.
Engage helped to train, via a virtual platform, over 180 people within our supply chain who would be working within the system every day, helping to maintain momentum with this new way of working. We staggered the launch by geographical region to ensure it could be properly managed and it all happened very smoothly!
Q: What was it like transferring your entire labour supply onto one digital platform with online timesheets?
A: Surprisingly simple to be honest. For us transparency with our supply chain was key, so we made sure to engage with our PSL partners from the outset, to ensure that they were onboard with our vision and the journey we would need to go on. We made sure we carried out a pilot within one our regions to foresee any issues, and once we knew it could work, it was much easier to confidently expand this across the Group.
The switch from paper-based timesheets to online timesheets was always going to be the biggest challenge and I think we have adapted to the change very well. We have adapted the way we manage timesheets across the Group to ensure that it is fit for purpose, and it’s great that Engage has the functionality to enable us to do that.
A key focus of ours was to implement a system that was simple and user-friendly for all parties, which is why we picked Engage. It mirrors the process that we would previously have worked within on a manual basis, but provides us with more insight and transparency than we’ve ever had before.
Q: Did it take long to ‘adopt’ the software in the business?
Honestly, not at all. Don’t get me wrong, we anticipated some teething issues, but relatively speaking, we have had very few. We had very quick adoption, with 100% of users live within the first two weeks of roll out. There are always challenges moving from a manual, locally owned process to an electronic, Group owned process, but it’s clear for everyone to see the benefits of Engage so that made the adoption a little bit easier.
Overall, I was delighted at how quickly the system was embedded in the working practices of the business. We’ve had the occasional technical issue where we required assistance from Engage, but everything is resolved quickly, and the communication is always very good.
Q: What were the main benefits you saw with Engage and how quickly did you see them?
A: For me personally, it’s the insight and transparency. Being able to easily see the detail of the workforce that you have on site with access to the appropriate compliance is a huge factor. But the other key area is the MI that the system can produce in real-time. I regularly report on spend, placement information, agency usage and working hours which quite frankly used to take me days to pull together.
Now that we have easy access to this data, we are seeing more focus from the business on continuous improvement in cost management. We are currently working with Engage to add additional features to the system that will add further value in our cost controls, and there are some really strong opportunities surrounding this.
The other element for me is the enhancements around fairness and transparency with our supply chain. All of our agency partners are on an even playing field and have complete transparency with us, and each other. This creates opportunities for us to work closer together in the future and provide a better service to one another.
Q: Engage state that it facilitates the ‘collaboration’ across the supply chain. Have you seen this?
A: Absolutely. The collaboration across the supply chain was a key selling point for us, as we continue to focus on developing long-lasting partnerships with our suppliers and to have a system that enables us to do this is hugely positive. From the outset, I was clear that the technology and processes needed to be completely neutral and that is exactly what Engage offers.
We had a couple of strong advocates within our supply chain in Randstad and Bromak, so it was well endorsed from the beginning. All our other suppliers were quickly onboard once we showed them the system and were fantastic throughout the onboarding and rollout. We often receive positive feedback from them versus different systems they use with other clients, with some even adopting the complete back office of Engage and actively promoting it to other clients of theirs.
Q: How do you manage the system/suppliers on Engage?
A: We decided that the best way to manage the supply fairly and neutrally on Engage was to introduce a Labour Desk to Countryside and we now have three Labour Desk Partners who manage our entire agency supply across the Group. Each partner covers particular regions of the business and is a central point between our hiring managers, our agency partner and our agency workforce, which enables them to provide complete support in all aspects of the process.
Our business model is heavy on the use of labour agencies, so we needed a good system, that we could all adopt and use quickly and easily. Engage offered us the right solution and allows us to manage all of our labour supply in one place.
Part of the onboarding support from Engage was to train all our internal Labour Desk staff as “super users” of the system, so that they could properly support the business and the supply chain in its use. Engage also has a great support desk and “The Knowledge Base” which provides handy guides and video tutorials, so we were not short of training and support collateral when needed.
Q: So, after successful completion of Phase 1, what do the numbers look like?
A: I have undertaken an initial review since completion of Phase 1 and the numbers are looking very pleasing. Overall, we have estimated a total of around 25% cost reduction in processing time from the use of the automation within Engage.
Although it was initially quite alarming seeing the real-time labour spend across the business, we have also seen some immediate cost reduction, and estimate a potential 10% spend cost reduction throughout the rest of the year.
Q: So, what’s next for Countryside on your programme of ‘Digital Transformation’?
A: Well, lots! Engage ‘Phase 1’ has been a huge success, and we continue to have regular meetings to discuss how to get the best out of the system and achieve our end goal of a digital, integrated technology stack.
For ‘Phase 2’, we are adding all our Payroll Intermediaries to the system in readiness for April 2021 and the private sector reforms around IR35. This will help us build what we feel is a market-leading solution with each level of our labour supply chain integrated into the system, providing real-time data on all worker engagements, including the mechanism used to pay them.
The early warning system Engage has built in their platform will be switched on throughout February, so we can be completely confident in our process and workforce engagement from April onwards. Then it will be a simple case of using the system as ‘business as usual’ for all future labour assignments.
Next, we will look at a ‘Phase 3’ where we will integrate all the systems we use. Our ERP system will be integrated with Engage and we are also in the process of deploying the use of biometrics on all sites, which we want Engage to integrate with in order to allow worker data, as well as time and attendance, to move seamlessly between systems and provide maximum efficiencies across the entire business.
When we have finished in 2021, we will have a fully integrated technology eco-system, a market-leading risk management model around worker compliance and will have complete transparency within our labour supply chain.
We are very excited to be working to this target in 2021 and Engage is front and centre of our trusted technology partnership in this area.
Q: If there was any advice you could offer anyone thinking about technology, what would it be?
A: Take your supply chain with you, engage with them early and talk them through your vision. When they understand the end-goal, it makes everything in between much more straightforward. The system has to work for everyone, so keep it simple. Good technology allows you to do this and in doing so, you will get the ‘buy in’ from all your internal and external stakeholders. They have to be on the journey with you, so it’s really important to invest in the right tech – speak to Engage!